Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

UmbrellaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole

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Skin&Earth – It’s Lit

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.27.20 AMWhen an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&Earth Volume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.

Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.

Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.

Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.

Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.

All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.

Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.

Rating: Skin&Earth by Lights–8.5/10
-Cole

Batman: Haunted Knight – The Hero We Deserve

Haunted Knight.jpgHappy Halloween everyone, enjoy a special post!

Batman: Haunted Knight collects three Halloween tales by writer Jeph Loeb and illustrator Tim Sale. Famous for The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, the pair should be considered among the most trusted minds to weave a fantastic Batman story. Each of the brief stories in Haunted Knight glows with Loeb and Sale’s unbridled joint creativity, setting the stage for the two aforementioned novels that would become their masterpieces.

Fears, Madness, and Ghosts comprise the collection, each exploring in varying detail a particular aspect of Batman’s psyche. Originally, the stories ran separately as Halloween specials before becoming a seminal collection of one-off caped crusader escapades. The specials stand quite sturdily when evaluated alone, but they thrive when collected. Three dark Batman vignettes showcasing his skill alongside his flaws? Sign me up.

Fears launches the trilogy and establishes Gotham as a city overrun by fear, with Scarecrow dead center. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, who struggles to balance his…knight life with his more human side, falls for a mysterious woman with an unclear past.

The Bruce/Bats dichotomy is well-trodden ground, but Loeb and Sale handle it deftly without missing a beat. Bruce’s troubles are reflected by Batman’s woes, and Scarecrow knows how to exploit those issues with deadly accuracy. In my admittedly limited experience with Scarecrow in Batman comics, this story stands as one of the best portrayals of the villain I’ve ever read. There’s nobody better suited to bring out the dark corners of Bruce Wayne’s mind. Where The Joker forces Batman to wrestle with chaos for its own sake, Scarecrow smartly plays to Batman’s biggest weakness: his undeniable humanity.

Fears, by a sizeable stretch, wins the gold medal out of these three tales, punctuated by a percussive and smirk-inducing conclusion that just begs to be adapted to the big screen.

Madness drops Bats into a thorough exploration of his relationship with his late mother, mirrored in the present day by Mad Hatter’s kidnapping of Barbara Gordon and her relationship with Batman mainstay Jim Gordon. I’ve always thought Mad Hatter faltered as a villain, if only because his deranged mind does nothing to compensate for his tiny stature. Here, he makes up for his shortcomings with ample firepower and Barbara, a critical hostage. Even with the added leverage, Mad Hatter still reads like a cheap caricature rather than a full-fledged villain. Instead, Batman’s own inner turmoil, heralded by memories of his mother, plays the real starring villain role. Sure, it’s a tad highfalutin, but the story ends up better off for it.

Ghosts brings the collection to a lukewarm end. Easily the worst of the three, but not necessarily bad, Ghosts reads more like an excuse to retell A Christmas Carol through the Batman lens than a story that deserves to be told. After an altercation with Penguin, Bruce is visited by the ghost of his father followed by three other ghosts who represent past, present, and future.

A few villainous staples appear throughout the tale as titular ghosts, but the narrative moves so quickly that no worthwhile conflict emerges. By the end, I had written Ghosts off as a semi-charming recreation of a classic tale using the iconic stable of Batman characters. It’s worth the read, but any deeper meaning eludes this one. And, at the end of the day, that’s just fine.

Batman: Haunted Knight captures the spark of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale effortlessly, setting the stage for their continued collaboration and cementing them as trustworthy Batman storytellers. The three collected tales vary in terms of quality, ranging from passable to amazing, generally settling toward the latter.

Rating: Batman: Haunted Knight – 7.5/10
-Cole

I Kill Giants – SLAY

51x4aytcuql-_sx321_bo1204203200_Four times, on four separate trips, I meandered through the aisles of bookstores, I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, atop my stack of “possible buys,” and four times I walked out of the store without it, opting instead for something more “reasonable” from my to-read list—namely, sequels to books I’d recently enjoyed.

On the fifth trip, perhaps because my fiancée wasn’t present to limit my purchase to two paperbacks, I left the store with Joe Kelly’s seminal story in-hand. Upon finishing The Road (review here), I yearned for a more digestible tale, and a standalone graphic novel fit the bill. Now, I only wish I’d read it sooner.

Protagonist Barbara Thorson sports bunny ears to her fifth-grade classes, often buries her nose in a book at the worst possible time, and picks fights with the school bully. She explodes off the page with gusto, thanks in large part to Ken Niimura’s artistic expertise. Author Joe Kelly quickly and easily establishes her as a misfit—she’s wildly absorbed in fantasy worlds, and typically veers off into her psyche without paying much attention to her real-life surroundings. “I kill giants,” she says to her mocking classmates. “Hey, that’s the title of the book!” I say as I read the line.

Barbara’s story builds in a modular fashion, and the details—small at first, in-your-face by the end—hint at a deep trauma. She becomes so violent and vitriolic that she lashes out at her newest (and, presumably only) friend, Sophia. Her home life, tenuously managed by her older sister, brings out the darkest sides of everyone involved.

Diving deeper nears spoiler territory, but one key message emerges from each sector of Barbara’s life: she must kill one particular giant to deal with her mental turmoil. It may be metaphorical to an outsider, but to Barbara, it’s very real.

It’s hard for me to separate I Kill Giants from similar meaningful experiences in my life, and I think that connection vastly inflates my appreciation of the story, both in terms of how it’s presented, through the eyes of someone trying to cope, and in terms of how effortlessly each idea jumps off the page. My reading of Kelly’s beautiful story sparked memories of my own hardships, making the book just that much more impactful. That certainly won’t be the case for everyone, but I firmly believe that most readers will find something to enjoy here.

Kelly dances through heavy themes gracefully, delving into realms of self-harm, grief, death, and violence with a grace that rivals similar genre pieces. While reading I Kill Giants, I was often reminded of similar passages in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. The two books seem inevitably intertwined, if only because of their steady treatment of difficult topics.

Kelly’s characterization matches his thematic prowess, at times surpassing it. Every character feels real and unique. More importantly, I sympathized with each of them on some level. Barbara’s sour attitude, despite its obvious cause, makes her unlikable in many ways, so finding solace in secondary or even tertiary characters comes easily, backed by Kelly’s steady hand and Niimura’s deft brushstrokes.

On that note, though, it is a bit hard to justify Barbara’s outright violence, especially during the story’s first third. Everything makes sense when the book’s big “mystery” is revealed; however, Barbara’s actions are rude and dangerous, and she rarely encounters any punishment. By the end, this all makes some sense based on the life events that drive Barbara into a dark place, but when the rest of the novel so effortlessly ebbs and flows within the boundaries of what is right, wrong, and just okay, this feels like a big miss. For example, hitting a guidance counselor in the face would elicit some sort of repercussion, so when Barabara does it and it’s cast off as grief or depression with zero reaction, it’s a narrative issue.

I Kill Giants moves at a perfect pace, weaving and bobbing through a blinding array of concepts without ever missing a beat, but also taking ample time to grapple with important thoughts. Every off-the-cuff line of dialogue, every inch of every panel, and every punctuation mark serves a purpose. Nothing feels out of place, and the narrative velocity of Joe Kelly’s writing stays consistent throughout. It’s a rare accomplishment, particularly considering how easily a graphic novel can race to tie up loose ends or linger on one thought for too long. I Kill Giants finds the balance and flaunts it.

Minus a few disjointed narrative moments, I Kill Giants is a masterwork of graphic fiction that navigates tumultuous topics with ease and serves as a testament to fantastic storytelling.

Rating: I Kill Giants – 9.0/10
-Cole

The Books of Magic – Gaiman’s Graphic Sorcery

51mirbkrqgl-_sx343_bo1204203200_Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic lives up to its name. Combining Gaiman’s distinct charm with illustrations by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson, Magic stands as a narrative wonder among the pantheon of amazing graphic novels. In fact, published in 1993, it may have built the foundation on which some of the medium’s best work stands.

I encountered The Books of Magic after a lengthy discussion with a friend about the Harry Potter series during which he called out certain similarities between the stories. I usually wouldn’t mention this in my review, but it seems this is a common question among Potterheads looking to dive into Gaiman’s graphic novel. Perhaps significantly, The Books of Magic predates the first Harry Potter book by about five years, and there are a few notable similarities. Tim Hunter, the graphic novel’s protagonist, has dark hair and glasses. Early on, he’s given an owl by an older magician. Both of these facts become apparent right from the start, but the parallels pretty much end there.

Following a quick and mysterious intro that establishes Timothy’s potential to be an immensely powerful wizard, he’s whisked into a crazy adventure by four magicians who all wear trench coats. He explores the past, the present, the future, and Fairyland, each time with a separate mage companion. The entire plot is staged as a sort of “magical preview,” and when he’s through with the journey, Tim must decide whether he wants to pursue magic further. Boiled down to its bare bones, the story is essentially Timothy watching a trailer for a fascinating, real-life movie, then must decide whether to watch the feature film.

The plot, paired with brilliant illustrative work and Todd Klein’s diverse lettering, make The Books of Magic a feast for the eyes and mind. Tim’s journeys through time and reality are beautifully imaginative, and they leap off the page with the help of Gaiman’s typical (but still somehow unbelievable) panache. The past, present, and future as they relate to magic are fascinating “locales” worthy of the pages-long explorations they receive. Fairyland, though, plays the starring role. An amalgamation of countless worlds including Hell, the dream world (inhabited by Gaiman’s Sandman, who makes a cameo), and many others, Fairyland and its whimsical reality-bending branches shine through in text and drawing alike, culminating in a downright gorgeous romp through Gaiman’s fantasy-genius imagination.

The story and setting are bolstered by a quirky cast of characters, many of whom have appeared in other DC series. In the visual medium, the lack of physical space for text places much of the characterization burden on the artist, and each illustrator in The Books of Magic showcases talents that well surpassed even my highest expectations. They treat every illustration with such care that I often found myself lingering on the artwork for minutes at a time, absorbing the detail admiring the artistic skill on display.

The Books of Magic builds to an explosive and, I have to say it—magical—ending that mostly pays off. Tim’s journey comes to a meaningful and sensible conclusion, but it does lean heavily on a loophole that felt either cheap or unearned—I honestly can’t decide between the two. Still, it did little to detract from the fantastic story that preceded it. In some ways, the story feels like a prequel to a much longer saga, and that’s partly true. While Gaiman’s novel stands alone, it did continue under new penmanship years later. I left The Books of Magic so enamored that I bought the continuation, and I can’t wait to dive in.

Rating: The Books of Magic – 8.5/10
-Cole